Along the Way: Ritchie Valens

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Grave of Ritchie Valens, San Fernando Mission Cemetery

While my mother had arrived in Los Angeles for work, my motivation was to escape the snowy, cold Pennsylvania winter. We arrived a couple days early to explore the region. Upon leaving the airport, we headed northward into the San Fernando Valley. The majority of the places I wanted to visit was in the Glendale and West Hollywood region, I had one grave I wanted to visit that was a little out of the way.

We arrived at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery, located just off Interstate 405, and entered the sacred grounds. The entrance to the grounds has a white tower in the shape of an old Catholic mission with three bells hanging within the structure. The San Fernando Mission Cemetery is located next to the historic San Fernando Mission Rey de España, which was founded September 8, 1797 by the Franciscans. The original Mission Cemetery is located on the north side of the Mission Church, with the first burial recorded in 1800. The current San Fernando Mission Cemetery was founded in 1952 and covers eighty-six acres.

Armed with directions to the grave, we entered the cemetery and turned right. We had gone a short distance when mom suddenly stopped the car. “I’m guessing that’s his grave right there,” mom said as she pointed to a grave decorated with flowers. The decorated grave was in the general location where the directions were placing me.

“If you say so, then I guess I’ll start there.” I got out of the vehicle and walked over to the grave. She was right – this was the grave of Ritchie Valens.

Although he had been tragically killed years before my birth, Ritchie Valens was a part of my life growing up,  His songs “La Bamba,” and “Donna” were on two old, worn cassette tapes featuring songs of the 1950s that were often played in the vehicle when the family went on trips.

Born Richard Steven Valenzuela, Ritchie was the second child of Joseph Valenzuela and Concepcion “Concha” Reyes. By the age of eleven, Ritchie had begun playing guitar and by the time he was in high school he was playing for his classmates. During his junior year Ritchie joined a local band called The Silhouettes. Note: This was a local band, not the nationally known group of the same name.

During a performance in January 1958, the band was taped by a local talent scout for Bob Keane, owner of the newly formed Del-Fi Records. Impressed by the recording, Keane auditioned Ritchie and signed him – it was then that Ritchie took the shortened version of his name and became known to the world as Ritchie Valens. In the summer of 1958, Ritchie’s first single, “Come On, Let’s Go” was released.

His next single was “Donna,” written for his high school sweetheart. The love song reached number two on the Billboard charts. The B-side of “Donna” was the song that would introduce the world to a Mexican folk song that was mixed with the rock and roll sound of Southern California. The song “La Bamba” captivated the attention of teenagers across America and reached number twenty-two on the Billboard charts. America had its first Mexican-American rock and roll star.

Note: “La Bamba” would grab the music charts again in 1987 when it was recorded by Los Lobos for the movie “La Bamba.” This version spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard charts. This posthumously gave Ritchie a number one hit as a songwriter twenty-eight years after his death.

With the success of “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna,” and “La Bamba” came a price. The instant success caused Ritchie to drop out of school and join the tour circuit to promote his records.

Tragically, the life of the rising Latino star would be cut short. In late January 1959, Ritchie joined the Winter Dance Party on a tour of the Midwest. Also on this tour were Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and – the group most forget was on the tour – Dion and the Belmonts. On February 2, 1959 the tour played in Clear Lake, Iowa at the Surf Ball Room. Buddy Holly arranged to fly to North Dakota with his band. Ritchie and J.P. managed to convince band members to give them their seats so they could escape the cold of the tour bus. The plane took off from Mason City airport shortly after midnight with a light snow falling. A few minutes later, the plane crashed into a pasture about five miles from the airport. The three rising stars – Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, and Buddy Holly – and the pilot were instantly killed.

I finished paying my respects to the talented star who was tragically taken at the young age of seventeen. As the sun began to set, we headed out of the cemetery to leave those interred there to rest under the warm California sun.

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